Rev. Gary Davis: I Am The Light of the World
Many people just listen to music as background noise, or something to sing or dance to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But those of us who consider music a hobby, or an obsession, aren’t satisfied with that. We investigate. We try to learn more about the songs and the artists we love, and in that effort are often rewarded with deeper knowledge. Or, at least, more knowledge. Much of what I know about the blues comes from investigating covers by musicians that I already knew, and that is consistent with the blues tradition of artists learning traditional songs, or original songs (or original songs thought to be traditional) from recordings or performances by others.
I first became aware of Rev. Gary Davis through listening to Jorma Kaukonen’s performances of his music, solo and with Hot Tuna. And I learned about Davis’ influential finger-picking style that had an impact on Jorma, and others, including Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, David Bromberg, and many, many more. I learned that he was born in South Carolina in 1896, was blind since infancy, and was an actual Baptist minister. That he played and recorded music into the 1940s to niche success. But that the folk and blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s catapulted him to greater fame, performances at the Newport and other folk festivals, and led to covers of the songs he wrote or popularized by popular artists. I learned that Davis generously taught many of these younger musicians how to play in his style, and his songs, and that he died on the way to a gig in New Jersey in 1972. And I discovered that while many of Davis’ songs were religious, he also wrote secular songs.
“I Am The Light of The World” is a religious song, based on the Gospels, and steeped in his faith. I’m not a religious person, in the sense of believing in a god or anything like that, but I do believe that humans have an obligation to try to do right by each other and, in the best of situations, help each other to do right. And while I suspect that Reverend Davis would disagree with me in the particulars, I think that he would, ultimately, focus more on the deeds than the beliefs.
Now, I am far from perfect. I’ve committed all seven of the deadly sins, and more of the less lethal ones, over my lifetime. Not to mention, I’m a lawyer. But one thing that I am comfortable in putting on the good side of my personal ledger is my 20 years as a volunteer with AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization, which I have written about before. We are a soccer organization, but one that tries to focus more on enriching children’s lives than a team’s won-loss record. For a number of years, I have been involved in training volunteers in management—not only the nuts and bolts of running a program, but in the AYSO way of doing things.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to help instruct at Regional Commissioner training. RCs, as we call them, are the leaders of local programs. I was one back at the turn of the century, and it was one of the most important things that I have ever done. RCs work incredibly hard, spend countless hours making sure everything is done right, and are all volunteers, as are all of the board members who help the RC, and all of the coaches and most of the referees. People say that it is a “thankless task,” but I found that many people thanked me, and in turn I tried to thank all of the RCs who followed me, and all of the other volunteers, not only explicitly, but by continuing to assist the organization locally and nationally.
A few years ago, pressed by some very smart and committed staff and volunteers, AYSO decided to put together a weekend of training for RCs from around the country, usually at its office in California. The weekends are instructional, but they are more. They create relationships, act as therapy sessions (there are tears!), and help the RCs, some who are brand new, and even others with experience, recognize the support that they have both from the staff and the volunteers around the country. And the constant message is that it is the RCs’ mission to provide a good environment for the kids, and a positive experience for the volunteers. It is an inspirational weekend, not only for the students, but for the instructors as well. I got to see a group of nearly 40 strangers, from all over the country, with different racial, educational and financial backgrounds, varying political beliefs and very diverse lives, bond, learn, interact, socialize, act crazy, marvel at magic tricks, and, at the end, have an enormous group hug as a new AYSO family.
What does this have to do with our theme, and this song? Each of the RCs who were trained at this session will go back home, to Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, all over the hand that is Michigan, Nevada, California, Tennessee and Hawaii, and be the light of their soccer worlds, and bring the light into the lives of thousands of children. And when those kids’ smiles light up their faces, into the lives of their parents.